In my previous post, I discussed the issues currently facing CfE, and suggested that I would come back to ways of addressing these issues in part two. In part one, I offered an analysis at three levels – macro-, meso- and micro-levels of curricular [re]contextualisation, suggesting issues at each level that have affected the implementation of CfE. In an ideal world, these issues might be addressed by commencing with the policy framework; a possible redesign being a precursor for more constructive curriculum development in schools. However, policy runs in cycles, and at present too much rides on CfE; the label ‘excellence’ has, for example, rendered the curriculum particularly high-stakes for those responsible for its implementation, and media interest (especially the potential for criticism) probably precludes any more than tinkering at this stage. With this in mind, I intend to offer this analysis from the bottom up, starting with suggestions at the micro-level of engagement.
Paradoxically, what many consider to be a weakness of CfE is also potentially its strength in relation to its development in schools. That is, its apparent ‘vagueness’ and ‘wooliness’ (to quote teachers in our 2012 research: see http://hdl.handle.net/1893/7075) is a source of flexibility and opportunity for innovative teachers and schools seeking to maximise the potential of CfE. However, this requires a better knowledge of curriculum development principles than is currently present in many schools; it requires a clear commitment to making sense of the big ideas of CfE and development of a whole-school vision for the curriculum; and it requires a developed sense of the mechanisms (fit-for-purpose content and pedagogy) for achieving these purposes of education. In short, it requires schools to treat CfE as a process curriculum.
According to the curriculum theorist A.V. Kelly, a process curriculum is one where ‘the starting point for educational planning is not a consideration of the nature of knowledge and/or the culture to be transmitted or a statement of the ends to be achieved, whether these be economic or behavioural, but from a concern with the nature of the child and with his or her development as a human being’ (Kelly, 1999). This sounds very much like CfE to me. Developing a process curriculum requires schools to start their curriculum planning with consideration of broad educational purposes, rather than by specifying content or conducting an audit of outcomes; and it requires a clear set of processes for curriculum development, for example as follows:
1. Sense-making. This is about development of a vision at a whole-school level. It is about working out what the big ideas mean, and what are the purposes (long and short term) of education. According to Gert Biesta (2010), educational purposes can be grouped in the following categories: qualification (i.e. the knowledge and skills that people need for citizenship, the workplace and life in general); socialisation (i.e. induction onto cultural norms and values, and learning to live with one another); and subjectification (a horrible word that refers to the process of becoming the unique human that we all have the potential to become). The Four Capacities of CfE – and I mean the statements of attributes and capabilities here, rather than the rather banal slogans – seek to articulate purposes of education. They are not perfect, but they do provide an excellent starting point for discussion and sense-making. Arguably, in many schools, this sense-making has not occurred in sufficient depth, and subsequently such schools have failed to develop a sufficiently holistic vision for CfE. This was illustrated nicely by some research published by the Borders council in late 2012 (http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6296430), which suggested that only around 10% of schools had developed a clear vision, and that these schools were developing better programmes as a result.
2. The development of fit-for-purpose practices. Clarity of purpose engenders clarity in the development of practices. These include the specification of knowledge and teaching methods, as well as questions of provision.
a. For example, schools need to consider what sorts of knowledge need to be acquired / developed. A useful concept is the notion of powerful knowledge, developed by educationalist Michael Young (2007). Young suggests that knowledge is powerful because it is grounded in the disciplines (i.e. it is scientific or disciplinary knowledge, rather than everyday knowledge; knowledge developed over time by communities of scholars according to scientific processes). While adopting the basic notion of powerful knowledge, I would disagree with Young as to why knowledge is powerful. Instead I prefer to see knowledge as powerful because of its potential effects; knowledge is powerful in what it makes possible, what it unlocks for young people. Knowledge is powerful in that it enables social action, critical citizenship, engagement with the natural world and effective careers, etc.. Some such knowledge may be of the everyday variety (e.g. health and relationships education). Much will be grounded in disciplines. The key point here is that knowledge is central to the curriculum. The curriculum should not be about skills elevated over knowledge (and indeed skills vs knowledge is a false dichotomy). It should, as John Dewey (a prominent exponent of the process curriculum) suggested, focus on ‘the accumulated wisdom of the ages’ (Dewey, 1907). This is not, however, the same as saying that we start our curriculum development by specifying subjects; but it does suggest that the acquisition of [powerful] knowledge is a key purpose of education, and that the selection of content should be determined by its fitness-for-purpose.
b. Another useful distinction drawn by Young is that between reflexive and routinised acquisition of knowledge – the distinction between deep understanding and superficial learning. This is largely a question of pedagogy. It is quite clear, if one looks carefully at the attributes and capabilities of CfE, that certain sorts of pedagogy are suitable for developing these. Thus, for example, developing the ability to think independently requires schools to develop inquiry approaches to learning. Making informed decisions requires pedagogy that develops this skill in a supportive educational environment. However, there is a caveat here. In some schools, CfE is seen as a matter of implementing off-the-shelf approaches wholesale – for example adopting cooperative learning across the school. Such approaches ignore the fact that, while cooperative learning is manifestly fit for some purposes (and I am a big fan of it), its uncritical adoption may fail to meet other purposes, where other pedagogies (including transmission techniques and worksheets) might serve better. Death by cooperative learning is, I believe, every bit as unpleasant for young people as death by a thousand worksheets.
c. I wish to dwell briefly here on issues of provision. Addressing questions of fitness-for-purpose should also be about looking at systems and procedures, thus identifying barriers and drivers which impact upon the development of the curriculum. A prominent example of where this has not tended to happen concerns the secondary school timetable. Logic would suggest that a serious attempt to implement the principles of CfE would include a serious look at the structure of the school day. One might expect longer school periods for example, to accommodate CfE pedagogy. One might expect a serious look at the ways in which knowledge is organised in schools. Disciplines and subjects are not the same thing, and schools should be looking at alternative ways to organise disciplinary (and everyday) knowledge, especially in the pre-qualification Broad General Education phase, where fragmentation is a problem (typically S1 pupils might see 15 teachers in a week). As Elliot Eisner (2005) reminds us, ‘There is no occupation … in which the workers must change jobs every fifty minutes, move to another location, and work under the direction of another supervisor. Yet this is precisely what we ask of adolescents, hoping, at the same time, to provide them with a coherent educational program‘. Serious attention to such matters might include the systematic development of inter-disciplinary approaches, including hybrid subjects (integrated science, social studies, etc.).
I have focused here on the micro-level – on how schools might work within the framework provided by CfE in its current form. However, we also need attention at the meso- and macro-levels. In the former case, we need to see more in the way of support for teachers and schools to engage directly with the big ideas as described above, and less of the proliferation of guidance that leads to policy mutating, as it is subject to continual reinterpretation. In the latter case, we need to see a redesign of CfE – one that places greater emphasis on both the importance of educational purposes and the processes by which these are translated into meaningful practice. Such a redesign need not be radical, as the underpinning ideas are largely sound. In terms of structure, I would like to see an end to the framework of Outcomes (the E&Os) given the detrimental effect these have on practice, as outlined in part one of this post (for an extended discussion of these issues, see http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03054980903518951#.Uw27ec7OuuI). And we need to think carefully about how we reduce the burden of assessment and paperwork, particularly the hamster wheel of value-added tests that has emerged in the senior phase. These are long term goals that are not going to happen overnight – in the meantime, schools need to focus on the resources and ideas that are in place, and to work constructively with these. The ideas presented above offer one way of engaging with CfE in its current form.
Biesta, G.J.J. (2010). Good education in an age of measurement: Ethics, politics, democracy. Boulder, Co: Paradigm Publishers.
Dewey, J. (1907) Waste in Education. In J. Dewey (Ed), The School and Society: being three lectures by John Dewey supplemented by a statement of the University Elementary School. Available online at: http://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Dewey/Dewey_1907/Dewey_1907c.html
Eisner, E. (2005). Reimagining Schools. London: Routledge.
Kelly, A. V. (1999). The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, 4th edition (London: Sage).
Young, M. (2007). Bringing Knowledge Back In: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education (London: Routledge).